Tuesday, February 2, 2010

An Obsession with Checklists

I've been making detailed checklists since I first began taking simple, overnight canoe trips on nearby creeks and rivers.  The list-making habit has served me well, especially when these trips expanded to hiking, sea kayaking and sailing trips that lasted for weeks and in some cases, months.  Most how-to books on various types of wilderness travel include gear and supply lists of varying degrees of detail, as do many of the recent books on prepping for survival.

When I first got serious about wilderness travel and especially backpacking, one book that had a good example of such a checklist in the appendix was Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker (now in it's 4th edition).  Fletcher has done extensive, long-distance solo hikes such as the ones he wrote about in his narratives: The Thousand-Mile Summer, and The Man Who Walked Through Time: The Story of the First Trip Afoot Through the Grand Canyon.  In The Complete Walker, he did a great job of breaking down the essential equipment for such endeavors into easy to understand categories.

Many items are universal and carried by almost everyone, but the details of these items are highly individual, and every experienced outdoorsman has preferences on the types and the manufacture of everything from backpacks to fire starters, boots, knives, hats, firearms and on and on. But you have to start somewhere, and that's what I did years ago after first reading The Complete Walker.  Working from Fletcher's lists, I crafted my own personalized wilderness checklist and after every trip added items I wished I'd brought along or deleted those I found unnecessary.  I created sub-lists or completely separate lists for each means of travel, whether on foot, by canoe or by sea kayak.  At first I did these by hand, then later on a word processor so that I could easily print a fresh copy and check it off as I loaded my pack or dry bags.

When I started sailing, the lists became ever more extensive, as the greater capacity of a larger boat meant more provisions, more essential equipment, more complexity of systems and more things to break or otherwise fail.  And of course, each voyage generated a brand new "to-do" list for repairs or improvements to the vessel before heading out again.

Today's prepper, whether planning to bug-out or bug-in has it easier when it comes to finding checklists.  There are many excellent books on the subject that include a variety of lists, such James Wesley Rawles' How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It: Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times. Online survival-related forums are full of member posts that include personal checklists, and many blogs on the subject include these as well.  Although people often debate the validity of published lists and criticize some for leaving this or that out or bringing something that may seem unnecessary, such debate is as pointless as arguing over which is the best handgun for self-defense or which rifle is best for hunting.  The answer is whichever is best for the user, related to their particular experience and situation.

Naturally my new book on the subject of bugging out would not be complete without some sort of checklist in the appendix.  I put one in with some hesitation and with a disclaimer that it is what I consider the minimum essentials to take if I had to bug-out on foot with nothing but what I could carry on my back.  I don't expect it to ever come to that, but it's a good exercise to make such a list and and an even better one to load up such a pack and go try to live out of it for a few days to see what it's like.  (See this basic list from the Bug Out Checklist button in the navigation bar).

Since my book addresses not only bugging out on foot, but also utilizing such transportation as full-sized motor vehicles, ATVs, dual-sport motorcycles, bicycles, canoes, kayaks, larger boats, and even horses and pack animals, it would not be practical to include complete checklists for every means of travel.  There are also other game-changing factors, such as climate, terrain, season of the year, and whether you are traveling alone or with your family or other group.  As a result, I've decided to stick with the basics and then add sub-lists of "extras" or "nice-to-haves" that I would include if I had a way of carrying it besides on my back.  There is also the option of caching supplies and equipment if you have done your advance scouting and have a plan about where you will go - whether in some uninhabited wilderness or on you own private retreat land. 

I'm always interested in knowing what other folks consider essential in their checklists of gear, and just about every time I've taken a trip with someone else, whether in the woods, mountains or on the high seas, I've come away with some new insight that leads to yet another modification of the old checklist.  These lists have become a way of life and I have no doubt that they will constantly evolve for as long as I am able to go outside.


  1. Compiling lists is a fun exercise because you have to really ponder what is essential. I used to have my sons do a bug-out list of 'only 10 things you can put in your pack'. They would always surprise me.

    Of course part of the fun is arguing your reasons why something would be essential. In that spirit, I have to take issue with the absence of a terry cloth towel from your list! How could you forget that? It has too many uses!

  2. Indeed, it is a fun exercise, just like the "list of things I would want if I were to be dropped off on a desert island exercise."

    You're absolutely right, a towel does have many uses, but I would move it to the "nice things to have if you carry them" list, because the bare-bones list already includes a couple of bandannas, which though minimal, can serve almost as well. But thanks for taking issue. I welcome more of the same.

    Believe it or not, on my 13-month Caribbean sea kayak trip, I carried no towel, yet I bathed or swam in the ocean practically every day. In that climate the wind and sun dries you quickly.

  3. Checklists leave nothing to chance...

  4. The older I get, the more I need them. Not just for preps but for everyday life.


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